What happened to the class of 2013?

In 2012-13, Idaho’s high school graduation rate dropped to its lowest point in a decade.

The numbers — the most recent available — largely reflect a bookkeeping change. The federal government wants schools to do a better job of tracking students who leave the education system, even if they just transfer to another school; any students who fall through the cracks will be listed as dropouts.

The tougher reporting requirements present a long-term challenge to Idaho — a state that has long taken pride in its high graduation rates. It will be all the more difficult for Idaho to meet aggressive federal graduation benchmarks.

A big dropoff

The 2012-13 dropoff was almost universal.

The statewide graduation rate tumbled to 83.6 percent — down from 89 percent in 2011-12 and 93 percent in 2010-11.

Every large district in the state experienced some dropoffs. Some were minuscule; Coeur d’Alene, for example, saw its rate drop from 93.1 percent to 93 percent. Moscow, meanwhile, plummeted from 95.4 percent to 75.4 percent.

The dropoffs even affected many of the state’s high-performing schools — schools that received top marks in Idaho’s five-star school ratings. The star ratings use a variety of metrics, including graduation rates. Yet in the summer of 2013, five high schools received five-star ratings despite grad rates lagging below the state average: Dietrich and Marsing high schools; Liberty and Vision charter schools; and Paradise Creek, a Moscow alternative school.

The dropoff seems dramatic, but it’s hard to make comparisons between the two years. “I don’t think there’s really the relevance that we would want to see, normally,” said Joyce Popp, the State Department of Education’s chief information officer.

What’s different?

Idaho is changing the way it tracks graduates and dropouts, finally complying with new federal guidelines.

In the past, a school or a district would look at the numbers at the start of a senior year. The number of graduates would be divided against enrollment, and that’s how the school’s graduation rate would be calculated.

Now, schools are expected to track a graduating class from ninth grade onward. If students leave school at any point, they will be tallied as a dropout. A school can appeal — for example, if a school has a request for a transcript from another school, it can prove that a student simply transferred.

But only if the school has a paperwork request in hand, from a student’s new school. “If you don’t know where that student is going … you’re supposed to list them as a dropout,” said George Boland, superintendent of the Idaho Falls School District, which saw its graduation drop to 86 percent, down from 94.4 percent in 2011-12.

In essence, the onus is on the school to demonstrate that a “missing” student is not a dropout. If a school doesn’t file a successful appeal, a “missing” student remains classified a dropout.

Idaho is one of the last states to adopt this new system. Many school officials found themselves struggling, over summer break in 2013, to comply with a new set of rules. “It was definitely a very dramatic change from what they were doing in the past,” Popp said.

And not without confusion.

District officials are getting a handle on what happens with students who have to attend summer school (summer school graduates are counted among that year’s graduating class). And what happens with students who get a GED (they now count as dropouts, another rules change).

Ultimately, the biggest change comes back to record-keeping. Districts that were in the habit of tracking students as they left school saw little change in their numbers, said Marcia Grabow, assessment director in the Blaine County School District.

Indeed, Blaine County was a graduation rate exception. The district graduation rate actually improved from 95 percent in 2011-12 to 95.5 percent in 2012-13.

A better, tougher measure?

In the Twin Falls School District, graduation rates dropped from 90.4 percent in 2011-12 to 78.9 percent — the district’s lowest rate since 1999-2000.

Still, district secondary programs director L.T. Erickson likes the higher standard.

“It holds us accountable to account for every single student,” Erickson said. “We want to know where every student goes.”

In Nampa — where graduation rates dropped from 93.6 percent to 86.1 percent — district officials are stepping up their processes. “It definitely gives us an idea of whether students are continuing their education,” said Kim Eimers, student service and assessment director.

But this isn’t just tracking for the sake of tracking. It can change the way districts help their at-risk students.

Now that GED recipients are counted as dropouts, districts have an incentive to encourage students to stay in school, Erickson said. They also have incentive to keep tabs on ninth or 10th graders — and in Twin Falls, one staff member already is taking this job seriously, calling parents and even showing up on doorsteps to check up.

However, schools and districts will also be held to a higher standard.

Under Adequate Yearly Progress, the accountability benchmark established under the federal No Child Left Behind education law, Idaho and its schools and districts are supposed to meet a 90 percent graduation rate. That benchmark remains in place, but now it will be tougher to hit this mark.

In 2012-13, Idaho lost considerable ground.

Forty-four districts still met the 90 percent threshold, but a year earlier, 87 districts hit the mark.

Seventy-six Idaho high schools reported a 90 percent graduation rate in 2012-13, down from 134 in 2011-12.

More reading: What schools had the highest and lowest graduation rates?